At the moment, the Houthis believe they have more to gain from war than peace.
Diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen remain ongoing as the United Nations and United States continue to work to find a solution to the 7-year conflict. In October, the U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, visited the war-torn country for the first time since his appointment in August. Since then, Grundberg has visited the United Arab Emirates and Iran, returned to Yemen for a second time, visiting Aden and Taiz, and traveled to Kuwait, Egypt, and Russia. During his first visit to Yemen as special envoy, in Aden Grundberg met the prime minister of the U.N.-recognized government, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, Southern Transitional Council head Aidarous al-Zubaidi, and other political actors. In his later visit, he met Yemeni officials, again including Saeed, in Aden and the governor, political leaders, activists, and others in Taiz.
In November, the U.S. special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, also visited Aden in his first trip to the country in his role. Lenderking also met Saeed and other senior Yemeni officials. Since visiting Yemen, Lenderking returned to the region and visited Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to coordinate on regional security and concerns regarding Iran as well as negotiations on U.N.-led peace efforts on Yemen.
Despite these diplomatic initiatives, hostilities on the ground continued. On November 12, the UAE-backed Joint Forces announced a withdrawal from territories in Hodeidah governorate. This move occurred soon after the reported withdrawal of Saudi and Emirati forces from Shabwa governorate. Houthi forces took advantage of these developments, capturing several areas that the Joint Forces left. Yet the Houthis’ advance encountered resistance from some elements of the Joint Forces.
Continuous Diplomatic Efforts
The U.N. and United States have remained committed to bringing an end to the war in Yemen. In an email interview, Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the Middle East Institute’s vice president, said, “Recent visits by U.N. Special Envoy Grundberg and U.S. Special Envoy Lenderking to the region, including their visits to Yemen, are welcome developments and demonstrate continued commitment by the international community to find the path to end the conflict in Yemen and begin the process for a peaceful resolution. Nevertheless, missing from the travel itinerary is a meeting with the Houthi leadership, which is, in fact, the principal obstacle to achieving a cease-fire.” He continued, “Until the Houthis become part of the negotiating process, and as long as they continue to press forward on their military aggression both in Yemen and across the border into Saudi Arabia, there will not be a cease-fire or an end to the conflict.”
Although the U.S. administration’s mediation efforts remain ongoing, they do not seem to be going anywhere right now. While Washington played a role in pressing Saudi Arabia to announce a cease-fire proposal in March, the Houthis rejected it, saying they would only agree to it if Riyadh lifts its air, land, and sea blockade, which was imposed in 2015. But the Saudis are unlikely to be willing to unilaterally lift the siege on Sanaa and Hodeidah. For the Houthis, they appear still eager to capture oil-rich Marib. The Houthis reportedly have been seizing territory in the southern part of the governorate. Thus, they seem to lack a compelling reason to participate in the peace process. Meanwhile, Washington does not seem to have been able to offer the Houthis anything concrete in return for a cease-fire, especially to end their offensive on Marib.
In September, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Saudi Arabia and met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. Sullivan was accompanied during his visit by Lenderking and National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk. The main point of discussion was the war in Yemen. However, it appears that Sullivan’s visit did not produce fruitful results for at least two reasons. First, the U.S.-Saudi relationship got off to a rocky start with the new administration and progress in improving the tenor has been fitful, at best, with Washington expressing concerns over issues such as high oil prices. Thus, it could be argued that Washington’s somewhat arm’s length approach to the Saudis may be impacting U.S. mediation efforts in Yemen, especially considering Washington’s relative lack of leverage in Yemen and its need to coordinate efforts with Saudi Arabia. Second, the U.S. administration appears still to be weighing its options regarding its regional alliances. It still seems to be attempting some version of a pivot to Asia and reevaluating its force posture in the Gulf, which has provoked unhappiness and prompted some hedging behavior by Gulf partners, rendering basic diplomacy more challenging.
Washington’s stance on Yemen has traditionally been closely linked to its broader Middle East policy and in particular its policies toward Saudi Arabia. When President Joseph R. Biden Jr. took office, he quickly withdrew support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen and appointed Lenderking envoy to the war-torn country, raising some questions as to whether the United States had finally started developing a specific policy on Yemen. Today, however, Washington’s stance on Yemen remains relatively tilted toward Riyadh’s viewpoints, in terms of diplomacy and public rhetoric. The Houthis are partly responsible for this, having seemingly been continuing to align themselves with Iran. Diplomacy and rhetoric aside, there is some issue of the impact of this relative U.S. tilt, given Washington’s yet-to-be identified leverage against the Houthis.
The U.N. and United States are likely to continue calling on the Houthis to halt their offensive on Marib and engage in the political process. The Houthis, however, are unlikely to respond positively to such calls, as they continue to make gains on the battlefield. Absent leverage to shake that confidence, they seem unlikely to cede any advantage. Given those realities, any reprieve from fighting will likely continue to be achieved through local mediations, which some Yemen observers believe to be more effective in the fractured country, given the international community’s limited influence.
Hodeidah Withdrawal: Inner Divisions?
The recent withdrawal of the UAE-backed Joint Forces from Hodeidah largely came as a surprise. In a statement, the Joint Forces said they “recognised the mistake of remaining in defensive barricades, unable to fight under an international pact, while various front lines require support.” The Joint Forces are commanded by Tariq Saleh, the nephew of the late former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and are comprised of three main groups: the Giants Brigade, the Tihama Resistance, and the Guards of the Republic. The Tihama Resistance condemned the pull out and described it as an “unjustified withdrawal,” suggesting an inner division within the Joint Forces. In fact, some Tihami and other fighters, who are also part of the Joint Forces, clashed with the Houthis when the Houthis moved into ceded territory. Although the Joint Forces are loyal to the U.N.-recognized government and backed by the UAE, the move appears to benefit the Houthis more than the Saudi-led coalition. This is not only because the pull out was “unnecessary” to create further frontlines, according to one Yemen analyst, but also since the Houthis can use their control of more territory as leverage in any peace process.
In turn, this is likely to further complicate the efforts aimed at bringing the Houthis to the table. The Houthis are seemingly interested in becoming Yemen’s “sole representatives.” Their recent territorial gains are likely to make them even less inclined to participate in the broader political dialogue at this stage and to encourage them to make greater demands in any future negotiations.
Nonetheless, it is unlikely to shift Washington’s and the U.N.’s priorities. According to Yemen expert Helen Lackner, “The withdrawal changes little for Lenderking as he remains largely irrelevant. He might have some influence on the Saudis, but certainly none on the Houthis. Moreover, any assumption that the indirect U.S.-Iran nuclear deal talks could have a meaningful impact on Huthi strategy in Yemen is equally misguided, though probably part of US thinking.”
Lackner explained in an email interview, “As for Grundberg, he is trying to get a variety and range of involved parties to start a discussion.” Lackner said she believed the recent withdrawal doesn’t make much difference to him, other than it makes the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement obsolete, since the UAE-backed forces have left. She continued, “It will be interesting to see if its mandate is renewed in the coming weeks. Grundberg might try and revive other elements of the Stockholm Agreement, in particular that on Taiz,” as well as prisoner exchanges. Lackner stressed, “Despite remarkable efforts to engage as many warring and other parties as he can meet, Grundberg’s immediate problem, however, is that the Houthis have not invited him to Sanaa, which must be high on his agenda.”
The decision to withdraw troops was seemingly primarily an Emirati one. However, the move came as both the Saudis and Emiratis are interested in fully withdrawing from Yemen but seem to be still exploring an exit plan that would provide some semblance of order and diplomatic cover for such a move. They will likewise be concerned to avoid a rapid withdrawal that creates appearances they have lost the conflict. Their hesitancy, then, may be largely a matter of face, reinforced – in the Saudis’ case – by security concerns the Houthis now pose inside their borders. Perhaps against the force of realities on the ground, a strengthened Houthi faction would likely be seen as all the more reason for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to remain committed to the war.
Over the year, there were some small steps forward on Yemen, such as the appointment of the U.S. special envoy. However, diplomatic efforts have failed so far to produce a significant breakthrough. Engaging the Houthis remains a major obstacle. In 2022, there will likely be sustained efforts by the international community to end the conflict. But there remains no quick fix for the war in Yemen.
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